HUDSON—As the World Health Organization was preparing to raise the threat level a notch higher to Level 5, county health officials were stepping up their efforts to identify any suspected cases of the new swine flu virus and to prevent transmission of the illness if and when it appears here. There were reports of suspected cases midweek in the Capital District, including in Albany and Schenectady.
Columbia County has now set up a local hotline for inquiries about the H1N1 swine flu virus. The number is (518) 828-1212. Arthur Baer, Chairman of the county Board of Supervisors announced the phone number Thursday, saying it had been activated for county residents as a point of contact for all questions about the H1N1 swine flu only.
Mr. Baer and Nancy Winch, director of the county Department of Health, said in the press release announcing the hotline that there were no confirmed cases of swine flu in Columbia County as of Thursday afternoon, April 30.
But two cases of influenza type A in children were reported at Columbia Memorial Hospital earlier this week according to the hospital’s infectious diseases consultant, Dr. Amanthakrishnan Ramani. Neither was swine flu. The determination is made by a judgment call and points out the complexities of the problem presented by the fast-evolving epidemic.
The flu takes many forms and a given type of flu virus can change rapidly as it spreads. Dr. Ramani says that physicians can determine locally the severity of the flu symptoms. In the case of the two children at the hospital here, doctors determined they were dealing with type A flu, the most virulent type and the same type associated with the new swine flu virus.
There are only a small number of labs that can distinguish swine flu from the two other common types, avian and human, and determine as well whether the virus is the H1N1 variant that is believed to be responsible for deaths in Mexico and the death of an infant in Texas announced at midweek. Dr. Ramani said that the state Department of Health has a lab capable of making that determination, but physicians must get approval from county health officials before requesting the tests. That screens out some unnecessary testing and leaves the lab with looking at those cases most likely to fit the profile of the new illness.
In the case of the two children in Columbia County, Dr. Ramani, who is also chief of microbiology for the hospital, said the case histories of the children did not fit the profile of the new illness and doctors determined they had the flu, but not the swine flu. They were not tested.
One of the oddities of this new flu is that late April normally marks the end of the flu season. But this year, “we didn’t see flu in December, January and February,” said Dr. Ramani. The cases started appearing in March.
Dr. Ramani said the hospital has not changed its procedures but there is an “increased awareness” among staff and employees. He said the hospital is well equipped with medicines and medical equipment to handle an outbreak if it occurs. He is in regular contact with colleagues around the world who focus on the spread of infectious diseases of all kinds and he serves as what he described as a “sentinel provider” of infectious illness information to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ms. Winch said that the county health department continues to use the emergency preparedness plan already in place, which includes “appropriate protocols, education and awareness about the swine flu” that are used by county health providers, schools, daycare facilities, first responders, county department heads , community services and agencies.
The symptoms of swine flu in people are similar to the symptoms of regular human flu and include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people have reported diarrhea and vomiting associated with swine flu. In the past, severe illness—pneumonia and respiratory failure—have been reported with swine flu infection in people.
Like seasonal flu, swine flu may cause a worsening of underlying chronic medical conditions. The health department encourages people to call their primary care physician first if they experience any of the symptoms.
The Columbia County Health Department also reminded people that to help prevent the spread of flu they should take the following steps:
•Wash your hands often
•Avoid close contact with people who are sick
•If possible, stay home from work or school when you are sick
•Cover your cough or sneeze
•Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
A toll-free telephone hotline for swine flu information has been set up at the state Department of Health at 1-800-808-1987. More information can be found at the state health department’s website, www.nyhealth.gov, at the website of the federal Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov, at the World Health Organization site, www.who.int, and at the Columbia county website, www.columbiacountyny.com.